How many more times will Nebraska knock on the door before finally rising up and knocking it down?
On Sept. 18 in Oklahoma, the Sooners looked primed for upsetting.
On Sept. 25 in Michigan State, the Huskers took the lead in the middle of the fourth quarter and appeared, momentarily, to have climbed the mountain to a tide-turning victory.
Then Saturday night in front of an electric crowd at Memorial Stadium, Nebraska’s offense erupted for four second-half touchdowns, put No. 9 Michigan behind on the scoreboard for the first time this season, traded blows with the Wolverines and took the field in a tie game with three minutes to go feeling good about their chances once again.
“I thought tonight was the night,” coach Scott Frost said after the game.
It was hard to blame him.
Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez had made big play after big play in the second half and accumulated four touchdowns to his name — passes to junior tight end Austin Allen, redshirt freshman Rahmir Johnson and senior wide receiver Levi Falck, plus a go-ahead rushing touchdown minutes earlier — and the defense, which looked to be tiring but insisted it felt fine over the course of 81 rugged snaps, stood tall in the red zone and forced a field goal that knotted the game at 29.
Martinez needed a yard on third-and-1 and plunged over the left side past the marker. Then, the ball popped out and Michigan recovered at the NU 37 and returned it down to the 18. Martinez looked at the referee, adamant his forward progress had been stopped. The plea came to no avail. Michigan ball. The Blackshirts forced a fourth down, but the Wolverines were already well within range for Jake Moody, who knocked in a 39-yard field goal with 1 minute, 24 seconds to go that forged the final score.
Michigan 32, Nebraska 29.
“The goal, obviously, short-yardage run play, trying to get the first down,” Martinez said of the pivotal turnover. “I’m not going to stand up here and make excuses for myself. I can’t be careless with the football. I thought the play was over. I was standing as I’m standing right now and I thought it was done. But, regardless of that fact, I feel a lot of responsibility and I can’t make plays like that that hurt our team.”
The Huskers had one more chance, pushing the ball out to midfield quickly with a 25-yard strike from Martinez to Samori Toure. From there, though, NU stalled. Martinez missed Falck on a shallow crosser that might have got the Huskers into field-goal range. Nouredin Nouili missed a block that might have set the edge for a Johnson screen. A fourth-and-10 jump ball went begging, and the Wolverines celebrated at the end of a whiplash night.
The Wolverines, Spartans and Sooners are a combined 18-0 so far this season and there’s a chance that all will be ranked in the top 10 this coming week by The Associated Press.
Nebraska had a dizzying number of chances to win against any of them. Against all of them. And the Huskers did not.
It is the continuation of a brutal trend under fourth-year coach Frost, whose program is now 5-16 in games decided by one possession. That mark in 2021 now stands at 0-4.
And yet, it is also clear that this Nebraska team believes in itself despite all of those gut punches. Despite two missed field goals and a three-point swing on an extra point (of all things) against Oklahoma. Despite a wayward punt that missed its mark so badly that instead of a body blow to Michigan State turned into an arrow into the Huskers’ hearts. Despite Martinez willing his team back into the lead Saturday, willing to stand in against a withering Michigan pass rush en route to tying his career best with four touchdowns, only to see the ball and a chance to win the game squirt from his hands in a pile of bodies.
“I feel terrible for (Martinez) and for the team,” Frost said. “Gosh, they did so many things good tonight. That was as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching a football game, with the fans the way they were and the stadium and the way we responded. They’re a damn good football team. I give them a lot of credit. So are we. I told the boys before the game, usually, those games come down to one or two plays. … I don’t know if his momentum was stopped or not, but we can’t expect to get those breaks. We have to go make them.”
Despite all of that, Frost was resolute and almost upbeat after the game.
“One of the things I really loved is we took the field on that drive and I think everybody thought, ‘We’re going to win this game,’” Frost said. "It wasn’t ‘What’s going to go wrong? Let’s make sure they don’t have time to go win.’ We were going to go win the game.”
After being held to 32 yards in the second quarter and getting outscored 13-0, Nebraska's offense took off in the third quarter.
Martinez scrambled for 20 yards on third-and-11 to avoid going three-and-out, then found Allen for a 43-yard touchdown on a pretty play-action pass that left the 6-foot-9 tight end all alone in the middle of the field, trimming the Michigan lead to 13-7.
The Wolverines responded later in the quarter with a 10-play, 91-yard scoring march to extend their lead but missed a two-point conversion and settled for a 19-7 advantage.
Undeterred, Martinez rushed 7 yards for a first down, then pitched to Toure on an option play for 16 yards before the junior quarterback found running back Johnson for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
Johnson finished with 67 rushing yards on 17 bruising carries and a career-high 106 receiving yards on six catches.
Nebraska’s defense, the stabilizing force in Frost’s program through the first six games of the season, at times stifled opponents but all the while remained cognizant that it needed to make more game-changing plays rather than simply keeping the Huskers in games.
Deontai Williams delivered on Michigan’s next possession, late in the third quarter.
The sixth-year senior safety intercepted Cade McNamara on his 32nd pass attempt of the night. One play later, Levi Falck hauled in a touchdown pass out of the backfield for a resurgent Nebraska offense, which was shut out in the first half but stormed to 22 points in the third quarter to put Jim Harbaugh’s team behind on the scoreboard for the first time all season.
That lasted 4:31. Talented Michigan running back Blake Corum finally got loose and rolled to a 29-yard touchdown at the end of a 10-play, 75-yard drive that put the Wolverines back in front 26-22 with 11:21 remaining in the game.
With both defenses worn down after a slugfest early, the Huskers went right back down the field and scored again to retake the lead on Martinez's touchdown run. That drive included a 30-yard strike to Oliver Martin, a 24-yard run by Johnson and a ball in traffic over the middle from Martinez to Allen.
Nebraska got 43 yards on its first snap of the night but then just 90 for the rest of the first half against a physical, fast Wolverines defense. In the second half, the Huskers gashed Michigan for 298 yards.
“We made a few adjustments that I think helped,” Frost said. “We needed to be running a little bit of the (wrinkles) to our option plays because the base stuff, they weren’t giving us the pull and the ability for Adrian to get on the perimeter. So, we had to kind of manufacture that, popped a few things in the run game. Thought there was a great job by (offensive coordinator Matt) Lubick scheming a couple things up that gave us big plays.”
“It’s hard to point to what exactly changed. I’d maybe say part of it was mentality,” Martinez said. “There was a lot of talk in the locker room, but our guys were like, ‘We’re chipping away. We know what’s going to happen.' I think when we got that first touchdown, it was like, 'OK, floodgates are open, let’s keep hammering it home.'”
It was much the same for Michigan.
“I think it hurt the defense a little bit, we scored so fast in the third quarter that the defense was out there a long time,” Frost said.
Several of Nebraska’s defenders were adamant the Blackshirts didn’t wear down. All the same, UM ran 39 second-half plays and accumulated 235 yards. Jim Harbaugh’s team finished the night with 459 yards of offense, the most the Huskers have surrendered this year.
The final big chunk came when Hassan Haskins ripped off a 50-yard run that include a hurdle over senior NU safety Marquel Dismuke to put Michigan right back at the NU 25-yard line with about six minutes remaining, but the Blackshirts stiffened one more time and forced a 31-yard field-goal attempt from Moody, which he calmly buried to level the score at 29.
That set up the closing sequence. The next in a growing list of gut-punch losses rather than the first conquering victory of Frost’s tenure.
He says he’s not worried about this team folding. Not with a bye week on the horizon just on the other side of a trip to Minnesota next weekend. Not with three losses by a combined 13 points to a trio of unbeatens on their ledger since an ugly 30-22 loss to Illinois to begin the season.
Not at all.
"Because this team loves each other," he said. "They love the coaches. The coaches love them. This is a tightly knit team and, gosh, I'm proud of them. We've come so far."